I used to hate Robert Strange MacNamara. He was a mean, bullheaded bastard who didn’t understand that he was forcing my cohort to fight in a war that was stupid and wrong and had no useful purpose. But it was not entirely his fault.
The Vietnam War was the fault of screeching right wing maniacs who dominated American politics from 1920 on. A constant and irrational drumbeat of anticommunist rhetoric demanded an unbending and irrational foreign policy, which failed to recognize the rights of indigenous populations and supported… often with the aid of U.S. troops… military dictators and thugs around the world. No wonder that native groups were forced to seek aid from the Soviet Union, which at minimum offered the illusion of independence and concern for the working masses.
The global landscape is littered with evidence of a foreign policy designed to support corporations and suppress indigenous populations, the “communist” leanings of which threatened profits. Ferdinand Marcos, The Shah of Iran, Batista, Duvalier, and a host of thugs in South America, Central America, Asia and Africa have been considered our friends. Enemies have included champions of the people from Ghandi to Castro to Ho Chi Minh.
At the end of World War II, the Vietnamese nationals, led by Ho, had every reason to believe we would turn their homeland back to them. They had helped us defeat the Japanese, and we had talked a good anti-colonialist line. Then we handed them back to the French. Ho found friends elsewhere.
About the time the Vietnamese were handing the French their asses at Dien Bien Phu, the anti-commie screech reached its high point in the U.S. Spearheaded by Joe McCarthy, a drunk from Wisconsin who had faked his own war record to get elected, supported by a wealthy media magnate, Henry Luce, and broadly supported by the Southern bloc of the Democratic Party, the scream machine ruled Washington with a barely concealed iron fist, whipping the ignorant masses into a frenzy of anti-communist fear. We had “lost” China, the Iron Curtain was crashing down over Eastern Europe, and Hollywood was rife with traitors. If it had not been for the wide popularity of Dwight Eisenhower, we would have elected a certifiable right wing nut for president in 1952 (Senator Robert Taft). Many honest Americans were vilified and destroyed by witch hunts which only needed to label someone a “pinko” to ensure destruction of careers. Many politicians (Nixon prominent among them) built their resumes on commie baiting.
We could not lose another nation to the Red Menace. Eisenhower went into Vietnam cautiously, offering technical advisors to keep the right wing happy. Kennedy went in actually thinking he could win it with counterinsurgency tactics being developed by a new outfit called the Green Berets. Johnson knew withdrawal would give the screamers a new cause, and open the presidency to Nixon. He felt he had no choice but to win it, and so, with McNamara’s assistance and blessing, escalated the war.
It is said that in the movie Fog of War, MacNamara accepted the blame. I actually thought he deflected most of it to Johnson, who of course deserves his share. The real blame, however, goes to the mindless, power hungry maniacs who ran the scream machine. To their preference for rhetoric over facts and inability to see value in a global hegemony built on trust, trade and communication, not fear and loathing. And in that lies a lesson for today. The right wing has not changed. It is still interested only in power, it has no use for facts, and will use any drunken pill popping loudmouth or ditzi hockey mom, any lie or distortion of the historical record, to achieve its ends.
I cannot completely let MacNamara off the hook. I have always said that if Colin Powell was a true leader and patriot, he would have resigned Secretary of State rather than deliver the nation, and United Nations, an address that he knew to be full of lies and half truths. The same failure of leadership can be ascribed to MacNamara, who did resign in 1968 (and got the Medal of Freedom, sound familiar?), but never spoke out against the war until long after it was over and thousands more young Americans (and many more Vietnamese) died.